By Nimi Princewill
Notable for attracting a remarkable chunk of political goodwill; and of course, its accompanying ‘nuisance value’ in rigid communities, feminist activism is getting louder in Africa. As many more African women jump on the bandwagon to entangle their daily speech with the language of feminism, the more fluent they become in demanding gender equality. Championing this cause in Southern Africa, is Robin Gorna (Prominent UK feminist, activist and Support Unit Lead for SheDecides).
Robin is an expert on Sexual and reproductive health and rights, AIDS, international development, gender equality and global health. She’s the Support Unit Lead for SheDecides, a rapidly growing global movement which supports the fundamental rights of women to decide freely and for themselves about their bodies, their lives, their future.
To mark the launch of its first ever regional movement, SheDecides hosted an Open House event on the fringes of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Health Ministers’ meeting in Namibia on 7th November, 2018, where it celebrated the locally-led movements emerging in the region, and adopted a collective strategy and scorecard to help Southern African Development Community become a region where SheDecides. The event witnessed South African Health Minister and SheDecides Champion Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi and other SADC Health Ministers charter a bold new direction to a new normal where every girl and woman can decide what to do with her body, her life, her future. Without question.
Here’s a summarized transcript of my interview with Robin Gorna.
* The cardinal vision of your advocacy hinges on The Power of Choice: The right of every woman and girl to control her fertility and to decide what to do with her body, without question. What factors and experiences engineered this passionate drive in you?
Robin Gorna: You are right, we are fired up by the Power of Choice, the importance of every woman & girl knowing that it is her fundamental human right to decide what happens to her body – and for that right to be respected and protected by every society, community & leader. I love that around the world, leaders from all societies are stepping forward to affirm that, and say Yes! SheDecides.
I had the privilege to grow up in a context where women had power. I was raised by a single mother – she is one of 3 sisters and their father was quite patriarchal but also believed fiercely in women being educated and so they had good careers and were strong achieving women. As a teenager, we had open conversations about sex and sexuality. I was shocked when many of my school mates knew nothing (or very little) about their bodies.
I remember going to teenage parties and doing drawings of the ovaries & the womb, and explaining pregnancy and contraception to my friends who were terrified that they might be pregnant.
When I became an AIDS activist in my early 20s (when I was a student) that became a space where I took that passion for education and social change to the next level. I have brought those life experiences to what we are building together through SheDecides.
* You have been an advocate and strategist with a strong track record, since the last 1980s. You are also popularly known for your commitment in leading effective action on sexual & reproductive health and rights and HIV with a focus on the rights of women, adolescents and children. In what region of the world have you encountered the most challenges as regards your line of work?
Robin Gorna: Wow. Nice compliment and great question! To be honest, I think all regions have their challenges. Every country and community is different. Often, people characterise certain countries in a very negative way because of certain rules or incidents, but usually, things are more complicated below the surface. Certainly when leaders make negative comments about girls & women and put laws in place that stop us from deciding for ourselves, it makes life very tough. We are seeing that at the moment in some African countries. But at the same time, we are seeing amazing leaders step forward – like our Champions Ministers Haufiku & Motsoaledi in Namibia & South Africa. And they are influencing their peers.
This week, the Ministers from Angola, Tanzania & Zimbabwe all said they want to be SheDecides Champions, so I think change is happening. And it is happening because there are so many dynamic, determined & energetic young people demanding their rights and holding their leaders to account. I’m focused on driving change not singling out individual countries for criticism. Criticism rarely helps to make that change happen.
* The emancipation of women in Africa is perceived to be a long-term idealistic struggle, as patriarchy eats deep within Africa’s social systems. Do you think gender equality is achievable in its entirety in Africa?
Robin Gorna: Another great question, and a great one. I am hopeful. Obviously the continent is really diverse but we are seeing real hope and change. Look at Ethiopia & Rwanda. Getting change in Parliament is so important. Law & policy makers can create real change. I was honoured to spend time with Hon Ummy Mwalimu this week. She is so focused on the health & rights of girls and women in Tanzania. A really tough context, of course, but I do believe over time change will come. And I met some incredibly powerful women from Zimbabwe who reminded us that they have the 1st ever woman in the role of Defence Minister. It’s not just about politicians though. We are seeing more progressive leaders at community level, in faith communities and in the media. That makes change happen. And I think the energy of young women activists in Africa is unstoppable!
* Following the ‘supervised’ entitlements of women in most parts of Africa and other parts of the world, how do you personally combat draconian cultures and policies that frowns at the allocation of certain privileges to women?
Robin Gorna: Ok. Deep question. It is not my personal role to combat any cultures or policies. But I am delighted that SheDecides is sparking local movements where that is starting to happen. It’s early days but these are bringing together young people, community actors & political leaders with artists & creative thinkers from loads of different backgrounds. Their creativity and passion is identifying solutions across their differences and they are finding ways to engage in soft and loud activism for change. Sometimes they make loud public demands about specific things; sometimes they just push the point hard about what young people want (a world where SheDecides); sometimes they boost and support parliamentarians pressing for concrete changes.
* The SheDecides movement which you co-lead is gaining strength around the world; particularly in Africa in recent times. Tell us about the emerging women’s rights movements in the Southern African Development Community (SADC region) and all of the exciting activity that SheDecides Champions, such as the South African and Nambian Health Ministers are participating in during the month of November.
Robin Gorna: Sure. So right now, I am the sole lead (My former co-lead has a different role). I think the media release should give you the details on what happened in SADC. We have been working on this for over a year. Passionate friends of SheDecides – from across Southern Africa – have been responding to the Ministers’ ambitions as Chair & former Chair of SADC – to use those structures to make change. And now, they are connecting with the political leaders & development partners in their countries so that they can focus in on the top challenges that they each face and bring partners together to push for change. In some countries, that means pressing for government to release guidelines to health & education staff so that sex education happens well in schools, or so that professionals offer quality SRHR services. That is what has been happening in Uganda. In other places, they are pushing hard for better support for pregnant teenagers, etc. These movements are important because they bring together so many different groups and people.
* On a final note, the SheDecides movement’s next attention turns to Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo having recently concluded with Namibia. I’m particularly intrigued by the SheDecides skills-building session coming up in Rwanda, entitled “Changing the rules: how can young people challenge laws and policies that deny women and girls their reproductive rights?”
How does this assist African countries to reach the targets set in the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as realizing the rights of all citizens, especially women and girls?
Robin Gorna: Yes. We are excited to be going to ICFP and to be working with the dynamic young people there. The more young people who find their voice and strength to push for change, the better.
Politicians really are listening. And we are hoping to help with developing the skills they need to learn from what has worked in the past and what has not.
And of course to teach we older activists, new ways of making change. We have lots to learn from that young leadership. At the end of the day, it is all about solidarity. Finding out that we are the majority. And if we can unleash these progressive forces throughout societies — make it easy for leaders to drive change, I am confident we will achieve that new normal and have a hope of reaching the SDGs.
Writer. Mobile Journalist. Social Reformer